It is my last evening in Baghdad before heading out tomorrow on the trip back to Kuwait and I have located a computer on which I can get on the internet and write you my weekly letter. It has been an interesting few days. This will obviously be a demanding year for me, but even with all the discouraging things staring me in the face, I am energized by the prospect of facing all the challenges and having the opportunity to be on the front line of this generation's predominant foreign policy challenge. If I did not do this, I know I would look back later and regret it.
I flew up on a C-130 from Kuwait. As a "VIP" I got a little more comfortable ride than the folks in the back sitting on the canvas jump seats in the dark. I was given a seat in the cockpit sitting next to the navigator and with headphones on I could converse with the crew throughout the flight and also see the city as we made our approach. The crew was so young of course, probably not too much older than you and probably all younger than Marie. They were very curious to be carrying this strange VIP diplomat and so they wanted to find out what I was doing and what that all meant. They lost interest quickly though because it was pretty obvious that for them, the really fun and cool things in life all involved flying and engines and propellors and wind speed and the like. They chatted and joked and seemed like a bunch of kids until we reached the airspace approaching Baghdad and then everything got very serious. They all put on their flak jackets and helmets and I had to don all my protective gear (helmet and an enormously heavy vest that I can tell already is going to leave me with back problems after a year in Iraq) and we began the "combat descent" which is essentially a near vertical dive while corksrewing back and forth till the last minute when you pull up and hit the runway at top speed.
So I arrived happily at Camp Stryker, the U.S. military side of Baghdad International Airport. The helocopter that was due to pick me up was delayed half an hour but it turned out that what is referred to as a PSD (protective security detail) from the Embassy had just dropped off another VIP and so I opted to go to the Green Zone with them rather than wait for the helo ride. I wanted to get the ride on what people call the most dangerous route in Baghdad and get the whole PSD experience. After once again having to don all the heavy PPE and getting a rather discomforting briefing on what I was to do in all sorts of contingencies, I was tucked into the middle seat of the middle of three fully kitted out armored vehicles that looked very sinister with all the gear and devices strapped on. It took about 15 minutes to wend our way around and off the airbase and then we hit the point that is defined as "red zone" and everyone was strapping on their gloves and goggles and loading their guns and we made the last run down the special lane that has been created on the airport road for PSD's. It was shielded on all sides the whole 5 mile route to the green zone so there was not much to see, just lots of crazy weaving around and shouting over the radios. I was dropped off safely at the North CAC where my secretary to be met me and then I was in the bizarre world of the Palace.
I have had several days of useful meetings with many Embassy folks and then I met with some of the Iraqi officials I will be getting to know, traveling out to the Council of Representatives Building or the Rasheed Hotel for those meetings. Wednesday I went with the Ambassador to a full day of meetings at Camp Speicher, the U.S. airbase just outside Tikrit in Salahadeen province. The U.S. military brought in four of the governors of northern provinces for meetings to discuss various political and economic reconstruction issues. That trip involved helos out the airport and then C-130's up to Speicher. The return flight was even more harrowing than my first landing at Stryker as we had high winds in addition to the combat descent. On the helo ride out I ended up sitting in what I was told afterwards by the crew is what they call the hurricane seat on a wide open Blackhawk. The name cames from the backwash of the rotors that hits you square on during the flight. It was probably about a 120 mph wind in my face the whole way, but I still got a good view of the city from about 200 yards up in the air. It is dilapidated, impoverished, and run down and you get the feeling of a place falling into chaos. We were flying over the western areas of the city where many of the Sunni neighborhoods indeed have been abandoned. Near the airport though you see canals and irrigated fields with water buffalo and palms that probably look much like the landscape looked several thousand years ago.
I have learned about trailer life and it is much like the quarters you would grow used to as a college student or missionary, or indeed as a prisoner in a nice low-security federal prison. My life will be substantially devoid of many of the creature comforts and amenities to which one becomes accustomed. I am sure I will grow used to it all. The food is actually quite good and comes in amazing variety. The dining facility serves four meals a day (they have a full spread of what are called midnight rations from 2200 to 0100) to serve the many people on odd schedules. It is basically very good cafeteria food. As I mentioned though, plenty of variety. Wednesday night I called Chris to check on him in Kuwait but also to tell him that at dinner they had Alaska King Crab legs, one of his favorites, as one of the entree selections. I did not have it though since my stomach was a little heavy from the flying experiences. I had the clam chowder and a salad and then grabbed a granola bar for a late snack. Chris however was very irate to hear that I could have had the crab legs.
It is hard to describe the atmosphere in this very strange place. There are hundreds of Peruvians all around guarding all the gates and doors and vehicle barriers. The little servicemen's unit has baptized two of them in the last few months. (I went to their family home evening one night which they hold at the outpatient clinic of the military casualty center just a half mile from the Palace. Two of the military doctors, an anesthesiologist and an audiologist are LDS so that makes a good meeting place. Church meetings are Sundays from 2-3 at the Palace chapel. There are hundreds and hundreds of contractors, many more military than Embassy types, and a generally weird sort of demographic.
Until tonight, all around the pool which is between the housing area where I am located and the DFAC (dining facility) the MWR contractors have organized some theme event and as I wander in the dark to my little trailer I hear karaoke, Baghdad Idol, square dancing, or something surreal going on. Whatever was on for tonight was canceled though because a tripwire was passed regarding the number of successive days of missile strikes in the green zone. All outdoor gatherings are canceled and if you are outside for more than 15 minutes you have to wear your full PPE. We have to have a couple of successive days with no strikes for that condition to be lifted.
So good night everyone, off to my hooch for last night of trying to sleep.